Sunday, January 28, 2007

Caught in the Middle

HUA HIN, Thailand – It seems only a matter of time before Thailand’s deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra tries to entangle the United States in his battle with the generals who seized power in a coup d’etat September 19.

Thaksin was in New York preparing to address the UN General Assembly when the generals ousted him. He flew to London, where he has a home, and of late has been shuttling between Asian cities. He has not returned to his homeland.

The former premier recently hired two well-connected American PR firms, Barbour, Griffith and Rogers (BGR) and the Chicago-based Edelman. BGR is tasked with “providing counsel for Mr. Thaksin’s interests in Washington.” Washington?

This would not be the first time that Thaksin has tried to drag President Bush into his political troubles. Last June, while still in office, he wrote a curiously whining letter to Bush “to explain the current political situation in Thailand” and what he termed the “various extra-Constitutional tactics trying to bring down my government”

At the time the situation was this: The country’s constitutional court had just annulled the April 2 general election that the opposition parties had boycotted. The election commission and Thaksin’s own party were being investigated for electoral fraud.

Bush responded with a polite, two-paragraph diplomatic brush off letter, writing he believed Thai democracy was strong and the Thai people resilient.

Thaksin’s new professional media handlers certainly have some powerful messages to communicate – democracy under threat, global capitalism under threat, even a potential free-trade agreement under threat.

Presumably they would play down Thaksin’s undermining of Thailand’s 1997 Constitution, his human rights abuses, his intimidating the press and corruption, issues that sent tens of thousands of protestors into the streets of Bangkok a year ago.

With or without professional help, though, Thaksin has been running rings around the bumbling generals in Bangkok. He has been making his case in interviews with the international media, including the CNN, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal and Asahi Shimbun from Singapore and Tokyo.

His visit to Singapore sparked a row between the two countries after he was officially received by the deputy prime minister, S Jayakumar. China and Japan, two other countries that Thaksin has visited of late, have been more circumspect.

The junta’s efforts to block the broadcasting or publication of these interviews in Thailand were not only unsuccessful but just handed Thaksin more ammunition to portray himself as a martyr to democracy.

The ruling junta could use a little professional PR help too. In the four months since the coup, the general have, through series of missteps, more or less squandered much of the good will that initially greeted them.

One was a clumsy imposition of capital controls to slow the rise of the local currency that caused the Thai stock market to crash. Another was an attempt to tighten laws regarding foreign ownership of domestic companies.

These actions left the impression that the government was being run by a bunch of clueless anti-capitalists. Wrote the Wall Street Journal: “A growing number of business executives in Bangkok now believe that Thaksin . . . had a steadier hand on guiding the Thai economy than does the new administration.”

Meanwhile, the various investigations into corruption of Thaksin and his family are moving slowly, providing the former with another talking point with the international media, that he has not been formally charged with anything.

Commented The Nation: “Somehow this popular line in foreign news reports has overshadowed the fact that any probe into the graft that triggered the middle-class discontent leading to the downfall wouldn’t have been possible had he remained in power.”

The bombs that went off in Bangkok on New Years eve that killed three and injured a score were a kind of shot-across-the-bow from the depths of the army and the police.

The message: the junta had better clean up its act – and get tougher on Thaksin and his cronies - or there could be worse. The US must take care that it is not dragged into the troubles of a longtime friend and ally.


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